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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre- and Post-Ceasefire

By Genevieve Casagrande and Ellen Stockert

The Russian military is reshaping its air campaign in Syria in order to compel the U.S. into partnering with Russia, which cannot destroy jihadists, roll back Iran, or set conditions for a desirable settlement to the war. Russia prioritized airstrikes against ISIS in Homs, eastern Hama, and Deir ez Zour Provinces in support of the Bashar al Assad regime from June 8 – July 16. Russia also conducted a series of high-profile strikes, including long-range strategic bombing runs from Russia and cruise missiles launched from the Eastern Mediterranean against ISIS between May and July 2017. Russia de-prioritized its air campaign against the Syrian opposition in June and early July as part of an effort to encourage the U.S. to accept Russia’s proposal for a “de-escalation zone” in Southwest Syria. The U.S. later agreed to the de-escalation zone agreement on July 7 following a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is disguising its strategic intent by masquerading as a reliable counterterrorism partner for the U.S. in Syria. President Trump’s reported decision to end support for some anti-Assad opposition fighters will likely only encourage Putin to seize greater control over the conflict and continue rolling back U.S. influence in the country.


The ‘de-escalation zone’ deal has further secured Russia’s freedom of action to support Iran and Bashar al Assad’s campaign. Russia has consistently used ceasefires in Syria to temporarily shift and reorient resources elsewhere in the theater. The U.S.-Russia-Jordan ceasefire is no exception. The deal has freed up Russian resources to surge airstrikes in support of pro-regime operations to disrupt the U.S. and its partner forces in Eastern Syria under the guise of fighting ISIS. Pro-regime forces with support from Russian airstrikes launched operations against U.S.-backed groups in Northern Suwayda and Eastern Rif Dimashq Provinces from July 8 – 10 amidst the start of the ceasefire, reportedly seizing over a “dozen” small villages and positions from rebels in the area. Russia has likewise surged strikes in support of pro-regime forces near Palmyra and Deir ez Zour. This shift seeks to constrain U.S. operations and provide leverage for Russia in future negotiations over a potential second ceasefire in Eastern Syria. 

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Campaign for Ar-Raqqa City: June 20 – July 17, 2017

By Christopher Kozak

The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) achieved small but significant gains against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City between June 20 and July 17. The SDF completed its full encirclement of Ar-Raqqa City on June 29 after seizing a number of villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River. Operation Inherent Resolve Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stressed that the maneuver emplaced a “physical band” that would “prevent escape or reinforcement” by ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. The SDF later breached the heavily-fortified Old City of Ar-Raqqa on July 3 after coalition airstrikes destroyed two twenty-five meter sections of the historic Rafiqah (Old City) Walls. These breaches enabled partner forces on the ground to avoid pre-positioned ISIS defenses at existing channels through the wall, including prepared direct and indirect fire zones, land mines, IEDs, and SVBIEDs. The SDF simultaneously continued to secure incremental gains along both the eastern and western axes of Ar-Raqqa City.

The battle for Ar-Raqqa City nonetheless stands to protract over the next several months. The SDF has reportedly encountered intensified resistance and “better-emplaced defenses” over the past four weeks following initial rapid gains in districts on the outskirts of Ar-Raqqa City. ISIS has extensively leveraged innovative tools to slow coalition advances, including drone-borne munitions and a new type of motion-activated IED. The SDF has struggled for over a month to penetrate one “significant defensive IED belt” on the northern outskirts of Ar-Raqqa City. The SDF must also contend with continued pressure to protect and evacuate the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 civilians that remain trapped in Ar-Raqqa City. These challenges have been exacerbated by the poor combat performance of elements of the Syrian Arab Coalition of the SDF. Most clearing operations are reportedly led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG while allied Sunni Arabs – often suffering from lower standards of training, equipment, and motivation – serve as the rear holding force. ISIS has exploited these seams to mount successful local counteroffensives against several districts originally cleared by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. These failures highlight future problems likely to be faced by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in the establishment of a reliable local holding force such as the Raqqa Internal Security Forces.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Russia's Mediterranean Threat to NATO

By Charles Frattini III and Genevieve Casagrande

Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin is establishing a long-term military presence in the Mediterranean Sea in part to contest the United States’ ability to operate freely and hold NATO’s southern flank at risk.[i] Russia’s military has deployed approximately 15 naval vessels as part of a permanent Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) as of July 5, 2017.[ii] Russia secured long-term naval basing for the MTF in Tartous, Syria in January 2017 after signing a bilateral agreement with the Bashar al Assad regime that extends the previous lease on the Russian Naval Facility for the next 49 years.[iii]

Russian warships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s MTF launched two series of Kalibr cruise missile strikes against ISIS positions in Syria on May 31 and June 23.[iv] The MTF’s June 23 strikes included coordinated fixed wing airstrikes.[v] This strike highlighted Russia’s ability to execute a combined arms assault utilizing forward observation positions on land, strategic assets from the sea, and follow-on strikes from the air within an active combat zone. The increasing complexity of Russia’s coordinated strikes is indicative of Moscow’s dedication to the development and modernization of its military and to showcasing its arsenal for multiple audiences. Putin is exploiting the Syrian war to test Russia’s newest naval assets and weaponry in combat, including the P-800 Onyx supersonic anti-ship missiles.[vi] The MTF will continue to receive the Russian Navy’s most advanced warships outfitted with Russia’s intermediate- and long-range land and ship attack cruise missiles. Russian officials have claimed that the MTF has also conducted a variety of operational and logistical naval exercises near the Libya and Egyptian coasts.[vii] Russia, which is in a strategic coalition with Iran, will continue to utilize the MTF to expand Russian military influence along the Mediterranean basin, while simultaneously increasing the risk to U.S. freedom of maneuver in the Middle East and North Africa.[viii] Russia’s growing naval capabilities, partnerships, and future basing expansion could threaten major global maritime trade chokepoints, including the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab al Mandab Strait, in the long term.[ix]





[i] John W. Miller and Fredrick W. Kagan, “The New Cold War in the Mediterranean,” Fox News, February 17, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2016/02/17/new-cold-war-in-mediterranean.html
[ii] “Russia’s Mediterranean Group Incorporates Fifteen Black Sea Fleet Ships,” TASS Russian News Agency, June 01, 2017 http://www.tass(.)com/defense/948989 ; Russian naval deployments to MTF after June 1, 2017: SB-739 Tugboat, [“The Black Sea Fleet’s New Rescue Tugboat Began to Perform Tasks in the Mediterranean Sea”], Russian Ministry of Defense, June 28, 2017, http://www.function.mil(.)ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12131320@egNews ; Vasily Tatishchev Reconnaissance Ship, “Russian Navy Reconnaissance Ship Deployed off Syria,” Interfax, June 26, 2017, http://www.interfax.com/newsinf.asp?id=762557 ; Redeployment of Admiral Essen Frigate, “Admiral Essen Frigate to Join Russian Mediterranean Grouping-source,” TASS Russian News Agency, July 9, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/955483
[iii] Rod Nordland, “Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad,” New York Times, January 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/20/world/middleeast/russia-turkey-syria-deal.html
[iv] “Russian Cruise Missiles Hit Terrorist Targets Near Palmyra,” TASS Russian News Agency, May 31, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/948581 ; “Russian Warships C Cruise Missiles, Destroy IS Arms Depots in Syria.” TASS Russian News Agency, June 23, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/95298
[v] Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation Facebook Page, June 23, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/1492252324350852/videos/vb.1492252324350852/1944936562415757/?type=3&theater ; Ellen Stockert and the ISW Syria Team, “Russia’s Maneuvers in Syria: May 1 – June 7, 2017,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2017. Publication available upon request.
[vi] Genevieve Casagrande and Kathleen Weinberger, “Putin’s Real Syria Agenda,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2017. Publication available upon request.
[vii] Sharkov, Damien, “Russia Set for Rocket Fire Off Libya, Coast, U.S. FAA Warns,” Newsweek, July 5, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/russia-set-rocket-fire-libya-us-faa-warns-610943 ; [“Russia Warns about its Fleet Live-Fire Training off the Coast of Libya”], RBC Information Systems, May 17, 2017, http://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/17/05/2017/591b90c09a7947e06e8652e0 ; “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Holds Drills in the Mediterranean,” TASS Russian News Agency, May 23, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/947124 ; “Russian Warships Conduct Anti-Sub Drills in Mediterranean,” Al Defaiya Arabian Defense and Aerospace Business, May 30, 2017, http://www.defaiya.com/news/Regional%20News/MENA/2017/05/30/russian-warships-conduct-anti-sub-drills-in-mediterranean; [“Russia closed the area off the coast of Libya to carry out missile strikes”], Lenta, May 17, 2017, https://lenta(.)ru/news/2017/05/17/po_komu_priletit/
[viii] Putin, Vladimir and Rogozin, Dmitry, et al.,“Russian Federation Marine Doctrine,” President of Russia Website, July 26 2015, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/50060 ; Christoper Kozak, “The Strategic Conversion of Russia and Iran,” Institute for the Study of War, February 2017. Publication available upon request.
[ix] Jennifer Cafarella, Kimberly Kagan, and Frederick W. Kagan, “U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, Report Four – America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project, March 2017 ; Genevieve Casagrande, “Russia Moves to Supplant U.S. Role,” Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project, March 2017. Publications available upon request.

Monday, July 10, 2017

ISIS Sanctuary: July 18, 2017

By Alexandra Gutowski, Jessa Rose Dury-Agri, and Jessica Lewis McFate

ISW is issuing a correction to the map published on July 10, 2017. The three corrections are circled as changes on this version. ISW removed ISIS’s control zone in eastern Qalamoun, northeast of Damascus. ISIS retreated from this zone on 25 MAY 2017. ISW expanded ISIS’s control zone east of Tel Afar, west of Mosul. ISIS held this terrain from 2014 onward, which ISW had under-represented historically. ISW refined an estimate for ISIS’s support zones in Idlib province. ISIS re-infiltrated Idlib province in 2015, in conjunction with its loss of critical border crossings in Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other al-Qaeda linked groups are presently attempting to disrupt ISIS’s operations in Idlib.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Employment Opportunity: Iraq Research Analyst or Research Assistant

Analyst or Research AssistantIraq Project

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) seeks a full-time Analyst or Research Assistant for its Iraq Program to provide timely and exceptional open-source analysis of the political-security dynamics in Iraq and how those dynamics will affect U.S. national security interests. The title of the position will depend on the candidate’s level of experience. ISW’s Iraq Program develops and communicates policy-relevant insights into Iraq’s politics and security. It also follows the regional dimensions of the war in Iraq. The project aims to keep policy makers apprised of the situation on the ground, inflection points, developments affecting U.S. interests, and potential policy options for the United States.
ISW seeks a candidate with expertise in the evolution of the war in Iraq and the drivers of instability there. The Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant will publish his or her insights to help identify the risks and opportunities in Iraq for U.S. policy makers and practitioners. The candidate must conduct detail-oriented research on emergent events, forecast political and military trends, and be able to work on self-directed as well as team projects.  The candidate must demonstrate the ability to manage a team of research interns supporting the project.

Organizational Description:
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) promotes an understanding of war and conflict by providing data and critical analysis to key American political and military leaders. In addition, ISW seeks to educate civilians about war and conflict, thus bridging the gaps between military and civilian decision-makers. ISW aims to improve how the United States formulates and executes its national security policy. ISW is vigilant at monitoring crises around the world, and has a track record of accurately predicting potential and actual conflicts. ISW provides a proven platform for emerging researchers and analysts to launch their careers in an innovative and highly relevant project.

Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant Duties:
The Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant will follow and publish on the dynamic conflict in Iraq by synthesizing open-source information on political and security developments in order to provide expert analysis regarding topics that include: provincial and parliamentary elections; intra-Shia, intra-Sunni, and intra-Kurdish politics; national politics including the Council of Representatives; the intent and capabilities of national and local Iraqi political and military forces, including but not limited to the government in Baghdad, the Iraqi Security Forces, Iranian-directed Shi’a militias and their political patrons, and Iraqi Kurdish actors; the Salafi-jihadist threat and the broader Sunni insurgency; and the role of regional states, including Iran, and other external actors. The Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant works with ISW’s leadership and wider analytical team to establish priority collection and publication requirements within these broad themes.

The Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant will also work closely with other analysts and interns studying Iran, Syria, Russia, Al-Qaeda, Turkey, and ISIS in order to evaluate the integrity of the Iraqi state in the context of complex and volatile regional dynamics. The Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant will also support ISW’s strategic planning efforts.

The Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant will gain proficiency in data-driven analytic software platforms to support his or her investigations into complex research questions and will publish findings through timely written and graphical reports as well as oral briefings. The candidate will also provide synthetic research support to long-term projects and forecasts to other team-members and programs as required.

The Iraq Analyst or Research Assistant will coach, mentor, and manage several research interns and collaborate with other assistants, analysts, and team members. The candidate will help edit and oversee daily and short-form written intelligence products that meet institutional writing standards. The candidate will also validate the interns’ compliance with proper data-handling and storage guidelines.

Qualifications: The ideal candidate will have:
1.       A Bachelor’s degree in a field of study related to ISWs core mission and research agenda;
2.       Excellent understanding of written and spoken Arabic;
3.       Strong understanding of Iraq’s political dynamics and military operations, either in an operational context or through research or coursework. A sophisticated understanding of military institutions and military history is helpful;
4.       Familiarity with Iraq’s media and social media environment and ability to discern source bias and information quality;
5.       Exceptional writing skills, proven independent research skills, good initiative, and the ability to collaborate on research projects;
6.       Outstanding briefing and presentation skills including experience conveying information to senior-level decision-makers;
7.      Excellent qualitative and analytic skills, ability to represent material graphically, some familiarity with data management methods, and comfort with integrating technological tools into research;
8.       Experience dealing with the media – both print and broadcast – is preferred;
9.       The dedication and drive to produce policy-relevant research in a timely manner;
10.   Interest and enthusiasm for ISW’s research agenda and mission;


Applications will be considered on a rolling basis. To apply, please submit a letter of interest, a CV, and an academic/professional writing sample to ISW@understandingwar.org with the job title in the subject line. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: May 12-June 21, 2017

By: Jessa Rose Dury-Agri and the ISW Iraq Team

ISIS is conducting spectacular attacks on security services, civilians, and symbolic sites in order to detract from Mosul and Ninewa Province operations and to prevent the emergence of a stable post-ISIS state. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured 12 neighborhoods in northwest Mosul, tightening the noose around ISIS in Mosul’s Old City. ISIS responded with attacks to the north, south, and west of the Old City on June 14. An estimated 100,000 civilians remain trapped in ISIS-held areas of the city. ISF created evacuation routes, however, ISIS militants have shot or executed civilians attempting to flee. ISIS also destroyed al-Nuri Great Mosque on June 21. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the “caliphate” from this mosque in 2014.

ISIS seeks to undermine ISF morale and devastate Mosul’s infrastructure, thereby diminishing the value of the city’s liberation and prospects for post-ISIS governance and security. The 15th Iraqi Army Division cleared areas west of Mosul near Mount Badush in its advance toward ISIS-held Tel Afar. Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) meanwhile began surrounding Qayrawan on May 13, and had reached the Syrian border by June 2. The operation included seizing Baaj, Baghdadi's former safe haven, on June 4. ISIS countered these gains by launching ground attacks on Hatra, south and west of Shirqat, Mount Badush, and near the Iraq-Syria border. Iran played a prominent role in the operations; senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Shaaban Nassiri died in clashes near Baaj on May 27 and Lebanese Hezbollah commander Abd al-Hamid Mahmoud Shari died near Qayrawan on June 2. Iran seeks to hinder U.S. freedom of maneuver along the Iraq-Syria border by maintaining a border presence and shaping post-Mosul security in Iraq. It may also hope to position its proxies to lead Hawijah’s recapture rather than U.S.-backed forces.



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Campaign for Ar-Raqqa City: June 6 – 20, 2017

By Christopher Kozak and ISW Syria Team

The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began operations to clear ISIS from Ar-Raqqa City in Northern Syria on June 6. This urban combat phase marks the culmination of successful shaping operations conducted over the last eight months to isolate Ar-Raqqa City under Operation Euphrates Wrath. These operations included the seizure of the Tabqa Dam in Western Ar-Raqqa Province on May 10. Ar-Raqqa City is currently isolated along its three axes with only limited water traffic to the south across the Euphrates River. The fight for the city will nonetheless prove difficult. ISIS retains at least 2,500 fighters in the city behind an elaborate system of berms, tunnels, improvised explosive devices, and other defenses “very similar” to its posture in Mosul, Iraq. ISIS’s forces are intermingled with an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians, raising the complexity and requirements of ongoing clearing operations. ISIS has thus far mounted a kinetic defense, ceding some outlying districts in favor of raids, ambushes, sleeper cells, and suicide attacks as the group falls back towards the dense urban core of Ar-Raqqa City. The capability of the SDF – a coalition of irregular forces dominated by the Syrian Kurdish YPG – to sustain its offensive and overcome these challenges remains doubtful despite expansive support from the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.

The campaign for Ar-Raqqa City also faces significant challenges beyond the urban fight. Continued U.S. support to the YPG risks alienating local Sunni Arabs whose support will be required to secure and govern the city over the long term against the threat posed by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups. The local population’s long-standing ethnic and political grievances will not be addressed by the participation of Sunni Arabs in the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) or Raqqa Civilian Council – both of which locals view as mere puppets of the YPG in Northern Syria. The decision to back the YPG in Ar-Raqqa City also furthers a widening divide between the U.S. and Turkey in Syria. Turkey views with deep suspicion the institutional links between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization that is currently waging an active insurgency in Southern Turkey. Turkish President Recep Erdogan mounted a failed lobbying campaign to convince both U.S. President Donald Trump and former U.S. President Barack Obama to halt their support for the SDF in Northern Syria in favor of opposition groups backed by Turkey. Turkey retains the capability to launch a major cross-border intervention against the YPG along the Syrian-Turkish Border - particularly at the border town of Tel Abyad in Northern Ar-Raqqa Province. Turkey nonetheless will likely eschew any intervention over the near term and instead hope that the YPG weakens itself through a sustained engagement in Ar-Raqqa City. The Russo-Iranian Coalition also remains poised to exploit any setbacks suffered by the SDF in Ar-Raqqa City. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advanced into regions directly abutting the SDF in Tabqa in Western Ar-Raqqa Province on June 13. The U.S. later shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force fighter jet after the aircraft dropped munitions near positions held by the SDF near Tabqa on June 18. Russia, Iran, and Assad likely intend to block further gains by the SDF near Ar-Raqqa City as part of a wider effort to constrain the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Eastern Syria that began in May 2017.

ISIS ultimately will not suffer a fatal blow in Ar-Raqqa City. Intelligence officials and local activists report that the group has already relocated the majority of its leadership, media, chemical weapons, and external attack cells south of Ar-Raqqa City to the town of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zour Province in Eastern Syria. The SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition as well as the Russo-Iranian Coalition both cannot easily access this terrain – located deep along the Euphrates River Valley – with their current force posture. ISIS stands to retain safe haven for the indefinite future despite the loss of its ‘de facto’ capital. The fall of Ar-Raqqa City will be symbolic – but it will not be decisive.